LAVALE — Cynthia Bambara recalled the first time she entered the now Western Maryland Works makerspace building in 2018, at which point the structure was used as a warehouse and did not have heat.
Today, the community-based facility is furnished with the latest industrial equipment and technology to promote innovation, and serves more than 10 rural communities in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Additionally, roughly 75 people who lost their jobs when the Verso Luke mill closed in 2019 enrolled in ACM’s Career and Employer Solutions program’s industrial maintenance, machining and welding classes at the makerspace through the Center for Continuing Education and Workforce Development.
On Wednesday, Bambara, president of Allegany College of Maryland, was in LaVale to lead Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin on a tour of the full-service makerspace, which also acts as a small-business incubator.
“The transformation that’s occurred in this building is just phenomenal,” Bambara said. “With the closure of the Verso mill, it turned out very timely that we were able to assist those displaced employees and provide some excellent training opportunities.”
ARC is a regional economic development agency that represents a partnership of federal, state and local governments.
Established by Congress in 1965, ARC is comprised of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a federal co-chair appointed by the president.
Local participation is provided through multi-county local development districts.
ARC funds supported the expansion of Western Maryland Works course offerings related to certificates in Electrical Discharge Machining Level 2 and National Institute for Metalworking Skills credentials.
With ARC support, Western Maryland Works purchased state-of-the-art equipment including computers, electronic classroom systems, wood working machines and 3D printers.
The creation of Western Maryland Works has been the largest investment in workforce training and career development in Allegany County history.
ACM’s Continuing Education Industrial Manufacturing program is the primary tenant at Western Maryland Works and in 2020 increased capacity from 39 trainees annually on campus to 68 at the new makerspace facility.
“The support of the Appalachian Regional Commission has been instrumental,” Bambara said. “Without those funds, this wouldn’t happen.”
The makerspace is “a perfect example of a good ARC project,” Manchin said.
“First of all, we just don’t hand out money,” she said. “It’s all about partnering, and what everyone brings to the table.”
Allegany County provided the building for the makerspace, and ARC helped fund its equipment, Manchin said.
“Certainly for the Appalachian region it’s about workforce development,” she said. “But in order to have a good workforce, you have to have a good education system and you have to have people that are well trained for the jobs that are available, or you have to have people retrained when they have lost their job.”
Greg Moreland of Elk Garden, West Virginia, was 52 years old and less than two weeks shy of his 23rd work anniversary at Verso when the mill closed.
“It was a punch in the gut whenever it was announced that we were gonna shut down,” he said. “I was one of the last workers to leave Verso because I worked out in the shipping facility so I got to stay there and make sure all the chemicals safely got out of the building.”
He said he felt “blessed” to learn ACM offered him a chance to learn a new trade after he lost his job.
“This facility is not just an investment into the individuals that are here,” he said. “It’s an investment into the future because we have (workers) aging out.”
Becky Ruppert, continuing education director of Career and Employer Services at ACM, said many of the former Verso workers in the makerspace program will finish their instructional programs in the coming months.
“They are coming out as really well-rounded employees,” she said. “A lot of them have already gotten jobs, which is what we wanted.”
Western Maryland Works has “grown exponentially,” Ruppert said. “I’m so excited with what we have done here.”
The makerspace continues to grow, she said.
“We have some really big stuff coming that will allow people to pretty much make anything on any medium whether it be wood, glass, material … whatever,” she said and added a woodworking lab is also in the works.
“By next January we should be up and running with the makerspace and allowing the community to come in and be able to utilize that equipment as well,” Ruppert said.
Also on Wednesday, Manchin and U.S. Rep. David Trone toured Brooke’s House, a Hagerstown home for adult women recovering from alcohol and substance use disorders.
During the visit, the duo learned how the $60,000 ARC grant awarded the organization in June 2020 was supporting business operations and employment opportunities for residents, according to a press release from Trone’s office.
“It was an honor to join the new Appalachian Regional Commission Co-Chair Gayle Manchin for her visit to Brooke’s House to see all of the good work Kevin and Dana Simmers are doing for women with substance use disorders,” Trone said via the release. “Funding from ARC is so critical to ensure organizations like Brooke’s House can continue doing important work in our communities in Western Maryland.”